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Current Research

Our research focuses on exoplanets and the solar system. Below you will find some of the major themes of our work. If you are an undergraduate interested in starting a research project in our group, please see this document for a list of available projects. If you find a project that you are interested in, email Professor Becker. If you are a prospective graduate student interesting in attending the University of Wisconsin - Madison for your graduate study, please contact PI Becker directly to inquire about project availability and learn more about applying to UW Madison at the Graduate School's website.  

This page will continue to be updated during the 2023 - 2024 academic year, so check back for more details on the research going on in the group!

The Disk/Mature System Connection

Our research focuses on exploring the complex and often mysterious pathways by which protoplanetary disks evolve into mature planetary systems. This encompasses the study of mechanisms such as planetary migration induced by sub-Keplerian drag during FU Orionis outbursts, the mass loss processes of ultra-short-period planets near the inner edge of the protoplanetary disk, and the implications these mechanisms have on the structure and composition of these planetary bodies. In-depth investigation of these phenomena facilitates a broader understanding of how planets, particularly ultra-short-period planets, evolve, and could provide insight into the distribution and densities of such planets we observe in mature systems. Our work in this area integrates a combination of dynamical, structural, and thermal processes to provide a comprehensive perspective on the transitional journey from the protoplanetary disk to the mature planetary system.

The Effect of Dynamical Evolution on Habitability

We are also interested in how the orbital evolution of planets, particularly those in white dwarf systems, can influence their potential to support life. For instance, as planets experience tidal heating due to a change in their orbital parameters, the resulting heat can significantly impact the planet's habitability conditions. Further, the shifting luminosity of white dwarfs, dictated by their cooling rate, alters the radial location of the habitable zone. Our work also investigates the effects of drastic stellar evolution events, such as the transition of a star to a white dwarf, on the stability and survivability of planetary systems.

Understanding Exemplar Exoplanet Architechtures

One exciting part of exoplanet and solar system research is discovering new planets, particularly those that subvert previous theories. Here are some examples of systems we have worked on that taught us something new about the range of planetary bodies that occur in nature:

  1. New planetary companions to WASP-47 b. In Becker et al. 2015, we discovered two new planets in the WASP-47 system. The discovery of these additional companions provided a crucial challenge to prevailing theories of hot Jupiter formation - which were previously thought to be lonely, and now we know they don't have to be!
  2. The discovery and dynamical analysis of 2015 BP519, the most extreme known trans-Neptunian object as measured by its orbital eccentricity and inclination, added to the circumstantial evidence for the existence of the proposed new member of the solar system, Planet Nine.
  3. A white dwarf with a planet orbiting extremely close to its surface. This discovery led us to wonder - could planets around white dwarfs potentially host life?